Is Fear the new Pandemic?

While travelling in Thailand, I was fortunate to read an editorial in the Herald Tribune published by the New York Times by a Philip Bowring on fear vs bird flu. It made excellent reading and certainly travelling in Thailand had made me fearful of some of the issues around the bird flu.

It seems that "irrational fear" is increasingly endemic in the popular and media minds. So much so, when you think about viruses and terrorism, you automatically worry. Franklin Roosevelt's dictum: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," and if you take that further, 90% of the things we worry about never happen. Of the ones that do happen if faced head on at the time, we can get our problems down to a very minimal level.

The thing about fear is the unknown. In the case of bird flu, health authorities and others may be spreading that fear by talking up the possibility of a major pandemic killing millions of people.

While travelling in Thailand you are bombarded with warnings and news clips about likely effects. I was concerned enough to consult with my local doctor who advised me that bird flu is still only transmittable from birds to man. The key point here is that it is not transmitted from man to man.

If you look at the SARS outbreak, it was justifiably fearful, but it eventually caused fewer than a thousand deaths worldwide and most of those were elderly people. SARS appears to have vanished, but has left behind a trail of anxiety and economic loss through Asia, yet some countries did not have a single case.

Bird flu is killing some humans and every effort should be made to limit its spread, but when you see pictures of people sleeping in hammocks and low beds with 1000 ducks walking around beside or underneath them, it's not hard to work out that they are setting themselves up to fail and get bird flu.

There are other causes of death we could "worry" about for example: Hong Kong has had recent deaths of pig meat infection. Dengue fever and encephalitis are killers in Southeast Asia and hepatitis B is endemic in that region too.

The Asian tsunami was also predicted "sometime." The recent tornados in the United States were predictable in "sometime." They have been of major magnitude, with a lot of publicity and fear around them.

There is mounting pressure for us to develop new vaccines and treatment drugs to look after the public should there be an epidemic and that is important. There are claims that the bird flu could cost the world economy something like $800 billion and could even plunge it into recession. That's fear as well.

Apparently the Black Death in the fourteenth century killed 20% of the world's population. We are warned of the risks of travelling in bird flu areas, yet as long as you keep away from the birds and realise it is only transferable from the bird direct to human at this stage, then you will be fine.

In Summary:

Yes, bird flu is a problem for the world, but at the time of writing this, it still remains only transferable from bird to human and not human to human. It may eventually morph itself and go trans-species into the humans, and then we do have a problem, but at this stage there is no evidence to show that it is definitely going to, despite claims by some parties.

I guess what I am saying, is we need to take a realistic view on what's really happening. We need to be aware that there is enough fear and unhappiness in the world without worrying about something that hasn't yet happened and may not yet happen either.


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